"What type of training do you do?" A frequent question and the answer is, "Good horsemanship and fitness, with a side of dressage." While there are many training “programs” or specific methods, or prescribed sort of routines with a lot of gimmicks and videos and you must buy this halter, or saddle, or magic wand; it really comes down to being able to read your horse’s behavior and their ability to learn.
Good horsemanship means that when leading, the horse should walk your pace and stay out of your personal space. No pushing, dragging, eating grass, biting, winging around spooking, etc. They should move over when you ask and walk on when you ask and whoa when you ask. When grooming they should stand quietly and not scoot all over the place or bite or kick, or squish you into the wall. Basically, they should be safe and respectful.
When riding, they should know how to stand still at the block, go when you say go, and Stop! when you say stop. Their response should be prompt and willing, not 10 steps later maybe when they get around to paying attention.
If you start with those simple basics, then you get to the dressage part. Dressage really just means training, but it’s a French term, so it sounds fancy and intimidating. For us, dressage means enhancing each horse’s individual athletic ability and movement and willingness. No matter what breed, size, age, quality of movement, every horse can be stronger, more relaxed, better balanced, softer and way more FUN to ride when they have some basic dressage training.
Dressage training for most people with most horses consists of these basics: Go forward off the leg, accept contact in the bridle, bend, lateral flexion, elasticity and adjustability (lengthen and collect), and some lateral work (ability to more the shoulders and hindquarters side to side). Those basic elements are what most riders with most horses need and honestly, are what most horses and owners can actually accomplish.
We all spend a considerable amount of time designing fitness and training plans for the horse, all too often to neglect our own physical fitness and body awareness. But the truth is, the second you settle yourself down into the saddle your leg is no longer just a leg. Your leg is now toes, a heel, ankle, calf, knee, thigh, and pelvis. Every individual part that makes up the whole of your body has its own specific function in the saddle and can speak to the horse in its own way if you're attuned to it. As riders we need to become more physically aware of our own balance, stability, strength, and weaknesses. After proper horsemanship, that should become the primary focus for any rider in order to become the most effective they can be in the saddle.
What kind of horse do you need for this supposedly intimidating, fancy training? Most of us do not have $40,000 warmbloods (or even $10,000 anythings!) We have our pet horses, draft horses, quarter horses, TB’s, paints, ponies, whatever.. All of those horses can do all of the basics of dressage and so can their riders. The horse’s main problem is usually physical fitness and developing the muscle needed to carry themselves properly. The rider’s main problem is often lack of fitness and training experience. Usually, the theory part gets in the way of feeling the horse. Developing feel, connection and timing of the aids is what the rider needs to learn.
Now to the trainer, who needs to be able to describe feel and tell you exactly when to apply the aid so you can learn it. They need to be able to tell you more than, "make a 20 meter circle at A, change direction, and do a transition at C.” It should be something like this- "How do you make a circle? Look where you are going, turn your shoulder, lift your chest, bend your elbow, squeeze your fingers, release a little in the contact, inside leg/seat to create bend, half-halt on the outside leg/rein to keep the shoulder from popping out and align with hindquarters, maintain steady rhythm, hind legs step deep underneath the belly, each step should feel more powerful and lighter…" (and check your posting diagonal!) That is how you make a circle.
Yes, there are a thousand little details to eventually learn about dressage. But when you get the basic concepts, you learn, feel, and then you learn when the feel is off. When the horse is stiff, unbalanced, locked up, not moving forward, rushing, heavy in the bridle, or avoiding- the feel is off. But you can’t know when things are wrong until you know what it feels like when it’s GOOD. Get good for five strides, then that will become 10 strides, and 20, and so on. Celebrate those little training victories and you will feel like, “Yes! I nailed that 20m circle!” and sometimes THAT is dressage. And then you dismount and your horse follows you quietly out of the ring and stands with manners while you untack, or stands under the hose while you tell them how awesome that circle was. That is good horsemanship in dressage and our philosophy on training.